This post has been brought to you by the word cold. Used in a few sentences:
Proud Texan is very cold because Texas power infrastructure is inferior. Other states don’t have these problems with the cold. Why is Texas cold?
Hopefully you fine people were able to read @apluswake’s knockout post for this week. If you haven’t then (literally I didn’t get to read it until like just now minutes ago because the internet finally stabilized long enough) seriously check it out.
Let’s play a game.
I am a sly politician who wanted power. I was easy going, respected, and knew how to manipulate those around me. I never actually sought power myself. I always got those around me to suggest I should have it. In fact, I was so brilliant that I got the Senate to give me all of the power in the republic, all while I acted like I didn’t want it. I tricked everyone into allowing the creation of a standing army at my command. Despite becoming a complete monarch and dictator, I left all the vestiges of the prior democracy in place so that everything appeared to be oh, so democratic. The Senate still “functioned.” The military still had their own leadership structure. But despite going through the motions, no one questioned who was really in charge.
Who am I?
I constantly thought of good ol’ Sheev this past week. The similarities between Augustus and Palpatine are quite vivid. Actually, as far as I can tell, there are only two differences. First, Augustus is not a dark lord of the Sith. Second, Palpatine was not, under any circumstances, benevolent.
Now, it’s good that Palpatine was not good because Star Wars would be very boring. But it’s too bad that Augustus wasn’t a Sith. If he had been (*Mace Windu voice*) “a Sith Lord?”, then Roman history would be the most popular subject in school and everyone would know the lessons we can learn from it. Alas, it was not to be.
Regardless, I always thought the Space Politics aspect of the Star Wars prequels was absolutely brilliant. It always just… made sense. Sure, a bunch of fighting and conquest for the Sith to take over the Republic would be visually cool, but there wouldn’t be much depth to it. The great thing about how Palpatine comes into power is that it’s subtle, manipulative, calculating, corrupting, and far more diabolical than any other way. Most importantly, it’s realistic. There are some lessons to be learned from it. I remember that people would make fun of the “liberty dies with thunderous applause” line, as if it were the zenith of Lucas’ prequel failure. No. It’s the zenith of his brilliance.
And after reading Gibbon this past week, I’d really love to ask George Lucas if he had any influences from Roman history in crafting that storyline. And speaking of Roman history…
Gibbon Rick Rolled us with Chapter 3.
After singing the wild praises of Augustus and acting as if all leaders were inferior to his greatness for the first couple of chapters, he now drops paragraphs upon paragraphs on the reader that amount to “Augustus was a conniving power hungry tyrant.” Augustus did pretty much everything a Palpatine does. He gets the Senate to give him power that he laments taking. He leaves the appearance of the republic in place. You know… Palpatine, just without lighting and lightsabers. But this seems to only mostly bother Gibbon. Gibbon’s point may be that all-powerful monarchs should be praised when they govern well… even if they conspire to wreck a democracy/republic in the process? In fairness, it may be better to phrase the point that I think he’s making as “monarchs should be praised when they don’t succumb to the temptation to become bad.” And Gibbon may be struggling with his own sense of monarchy, not only as an Englishman, but as one who was a member of Parliament in a monarchy, though he does throw some shade at English nobility’s lack of scruples later on in the chapter. (Side note for added context: this part of Gibbon’s effort predates the Revolutionary War).
Anywho, Gibbon and our footnoters do go back and forth to some degree regarding exactly how this happened. But my view is that some the smaller mechanics are moot in relation to the larger effect. The bottom line: Augustus set a never ending cycle into motion. The state of the empire was, forevermore, linked to the qualities of the emperor. Augustus was benevolent, Nero fiddled and murdered. Hadrian was a vain hippie, Domitian was a despot. Antonius Pius was considerate, Caligula was Caligula.
In some respect, this is a minor version of the see-saw effect that changes in the British monarchy caused in the 1500s and 1600s. Catholic! Protestant! Catholic! Anglican! Protestant? Catholic! But that, as they say, is another story.
As for the rest of the new Galactic Empire, er, Roman Empire, Gibbon makes it a point to emphasize the ease and willingness with which the Senate acquiesced to the power grabs of Augustus and subsequent emperors. Actually, the people were along with it, too. Gibbon wrote that Augustus correctly calculated that,
“the senate and the people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom. A feeble senate and enervated people cheerfully acquiesced in the pleasing illusion, as long as it was supported by the virtue, or even by the prudence, of the successors of Augustus”
Yikes. And Gibbon’s following assertion is even more important:
“It was a motive of self-preservation, not a principle of liberty, that animated the conspirators against Caligula, Nero, and Domitian. They attacked the person of the tyrant, without aiming their blow at the authority of the emperor.”
In other words, as long as the illusion of freedom and nods to symbols were fervently maintained, everyone was content to be singularly ruled by a dictator. And they never actually tried to reign in the power of the emperor save for one time! But as Gibbon recorded, it was a short lived moment of clarity in the Senate that was overridden by the Praetorians who were ready to take control and force the installation of their pick for emperor.
Gibbon tries to work out the effects of all this on the people, but we get a (fairly) sunshine and roses take at this point in the chapter. Tying back in with my post from a couple of weeks ago, this again raises some interesting information regarding Gibbon’s present attentions on the life of Romans vs the life of those under Roman control. As I mentioned, several of the emperors that Gibbon has been singing the praises of engaged in widespread persecution of Christians. If anything, this starts to emphasize just how big of a deal it was when Paul would assert Roman citizenship. As Gibbon notes, dealings with Roman citizens were handled very carefully by the government because it was one of the things the people had to see work correctly. At this point, I assume that Gibbon will eventually discuss Rome more in relation to those it abused in a more significant way… but he has already dodged a couple major chances to do that, sooooo…
It is at this point that the remainder of the chapter becomes largely genealogical. Starting with the elimination of Domitian, Gibbon walks through exactly how Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius, and Marcus Aurelius come to the throne, but retreads some ground previously covered regarding their motivations and personalities. But then, Gibbon drops a heavy assessment. I’ve added some emphasis because wow.
“The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honor of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.”
WUT. Are… are we going to get more on this? Because in all seriousness, that’s one heck of an assertion that needs some serious exposition and detail. I mean, Gibbon just contended that the Roman populace was incapable of freedom. Gibbon does allude to the substitution of image for substance among the populace, which is a serious issue. But that’s a really hearty WUT moment.
It is at this point that things begin to get… dark. Gibbon briefly litigates the bad emperors that fill the gap between Augustus and Nerva, Trajan, etc. He works through the careers of Helvidius and Thrasea, who were murdered in show trials. Gibbon’s prose delivers far more than I can:
“Tiberius, and those emperors who adopted his maxims, attempted to disguise their murders by the formalities of justice, and perhaps enjoyed a secret pleasure in rendering the senate their accomplice as well as their victim. By this assembly, the last of the Romans were condemned for imaginary crimes and real virtues. Their infamous accusers assumed the language of independent patriots, who arraigned a dangerous citizen before the tribunal of his country; and the public service was rewarded by riches and honors. The servile judges professed to assert the majesty of the commonwealth, violated in the person of its first magistrate, whose clemency they most applauded when they trembled the most at his inexorable and impending cruelty. The tyrant beheld their baseness with just contempt, and encountered their secret sentiments of detestation with sincere and avowed hatred for the whole body of the senate.”
In conclusion of the chapter, Gibbon points out the bleak reality that the world was Rome and Rome was the world. There was no leaving it. There was no other land. You were stuck and had no choice. You were in prison. So… people weren’t capable of freedom but longed for the ability to escape their country … which was a prison? What did Gibbon think people would want when they left? “Good” dictators?
Declining and falling, indeed.
Some final thoughts…
Of particular note to me out of all of this, is how focused on symbols and veneers that people were, versus substance. It was illusion of a freedom that they cared about. Hard not to think about modern parallels here. Obsession over national anthems at sports events, but ignorance of the Constitution. Lack of attention on crippling regulation or overreach, but outrage at the slightest breaks in decorum. People who demand a certain brand of behavior and extoll endless and wonderful virtues of those who fit the bill, even if those individuals wield horrible policy that negatively impacts people’s lives and erodes the fabric of a nation. Mangled and monstrous substance can’t be allowed to masquerade as character and virtue because of nice sounding things and performative theater.
I’m reminded of a favorite quote. It comes from jazz saxophone legend Branford Marsalis, responding to a question about his students:
“…The only thing they’re really interested in is you telling them how right they are and how good they are. That is the same mentality that basically forces Harvard to give out B’s to people that don’t deserve them out of the fear that they’ll go to other schools that will give them B’s, and those schools will make the money. We live in a country that seems to be just in this massive state of delusion, where the idea of what you are is more important than you actually being that. And it actually works as long as everybody’s winking at the same time. And then if one person stops winking, you just beat the crap out of that person and they either start winking or they go somewhere else… yeah my students just, all they want to hear how is how good they are and how talented they and most of them aren’t really willing to work to the degree to live up to that.”
Now THAT is cold.
Final note, especially because I hate ending posts on a downer and this chapter has some ominous mood to it: Gibbon occasionally mentions “Zeno.” Every time I see it, all I can think about is the Grand Zeno(s) from Dragonball Z.